Small Wars Journal

Counterinsurgencies and Deterrence

Wed, 01/22/2014 - 12:09am

Counterinsurgencies and Deterrence

Justin Lynch

America’s recent counterinsurgency campaigns have caused a disconnect between strategic and foreign policy objectives.  Foreign policy objectives, a state’s overall goals for its interaction with other states, must take precedence over strategic objectives, a state’s military and political goals in a particular campaign or theater.  Just as tactics support operations, the accomplishment of strategic objectives must support the achievement of foreign policy goals.  Leaders sometimes overlook the causal link between strategic and foreign policy objectives, resulting in unforeseen consequences to foreign policy from strategic acts.  These consequences can interfere with the accomplishment of the United States’ foreign policy objectives, contradicting or indirectly undermining the original intent of the strategic act.  This has been particularly true for large counterinsurgency campaigns due to a lack of appreciation about the limitations of military power during counterinsurgencies.  Large counterinsurgencies have diminished the military’s ability to deter threats and prevent new armed conflicts.  Because of these limitations, victories during counterinsurgencies have inconsistently translated into strategic success and hindered the accomplishment of American foreign policy objectives. 

One of the unintended consequences of large counterinsurgency campaigns has been the reduction of the American military’s ability to deter foreign threats.  Part of the United States’ current National Security Strategy is to “promote stability in the international system through unilateral strength and multilateral alliances.”[i]  The military is one of the key elements of unilateral strength, and part of what the United States brings to multilateral alliances, and it role is to prevent, shape, and win wars.[ii]  According to Army Doctrine Publication 1, “prevention requires a credible force.  Friends and adversaries must believe that the Army is credible in order to prevent conflicts. Credibility equates to capability and is built upon combat-ready forces that can be tailored and deployed rapidly. Credible Army forces convince potential opponents that, committed as part of our joint force, the U.S. Army is unbeatable.”[iii]  To provide the credibility to deter foreign threats, these threats must believe the United States government has the both the ability and will to effectively use force.  Without both elements present, enemy forces will believe American forces can be defeated, or will never deploy at all.

If the population of a democracy is to maintain its passion for a military campaign, the people need to believe that the campaign will provide a worthwhile victory at a reasonable cost.  If the perceived victory does not provide the population with a meaningful material or emotional reward, leaders will struggle to convince the public the campaign is reasonable, even with minimal cost.  If the cost is high in lives, wealth, or in diminishment of the population’s self-image, then leaders of a democracy will either have to make the perceived reward meaningful enough to justify the cost or abandon the campaign. [iv]

Unfortunately, large counterinsurgencies are typically costly and often do not provide clear rewards.  T.E. Lawrence famously said that “making war upon insurgents is messy and slow, like learning to eat soup with a knife.”[v]  Clear, visible victories are rare during counterinsurgencies.  Instead, counterinsurgencies are usually long, disorderly conflicts where victory does not come quickly or neatly, and does not feel like victory when it does.  The historical record validates this belief.  As demonstrated in the graph below, research done by the National Defense Institute on 89 counterinsurgency case studies shows that insurgencies defeated by government forces typically have a decelerating decline into irrelevance or extinction, not a noticeable defeat that the population of an intervening state can mark as a victory.


When defeat comes, it is still sometimes impermanent, as insurgencies frequently come back to life even after counterinsurgents destroy their structure or leadership.[vii]

Even if the government is able to demonstrate or create the rewards of a perceivable victory, large counterinsurgencies still come at a great financial cost.  FM 3-24 states that the most valuable thing the military can do “in winning the support of the populace” is to “provide essential governmental services, emergency infrastructure reconstruction, and humanitarian relief… establish, safeguard, or restore basic civil services.”[viii]  These efforts are expensive.  Vietnam cost the United States $738 billion fiscal year 2011 dollars.[ix]  As of March of 2011, war operations, diplomatic operations, and medical care for veterans had cost the United States $806 billion in Iraq and $444 billion in Afghanistan.[x]  This burden can cause a reduction in confidence in the American economy and dollar, an inability to focus spending on problem areas, and a “check the wallet before we act” mindset that reduces the government’s ability to quickly or decisively deploy military assets. In an era of financial instability, strategic gains that come at great fiscal cost cause the American population to hesitate before desiring to commit military force, and more quickly decide the benefit is not worth the burden on the American economy. 

One of the other costs is a reduction of the American population’s positive self-perception.  As shown by numerous war protests during Vietnam and leading up to and during the occupation of Iraq, significant portions of the American population want to view the United States as a force for good, or at least minimize what they perceive to be America’s negative impact on the world.  Counterinsurgencies unfortunately provide many opportunities for the United States to represent itself poorly in the media, particularly regarding civilian casualties.  While inexcusable, if a large number of soldiers deploy to a war zone for an extended period of time while surrounded by an indistinguishable mix of combatants and noncombatants, a minority will commit war crimes.  The history of the American military at My Lai, Abu Ghraib, and Haditha, the actions of the Blackheart platoon in Baghdad, and the killing of 16 Afghan civilians by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales support this theory. 

Beyond the few who deliberately commit war crimes, any war fought among a population will cause civilian casualties. By August 2008, the estimated number of civilian deaths in Iraq was between 43,000 and 95,000, depending on the source.[xi]  According to data gathered by the United Nations, the civilian death toll in Afghanistan from the years 2007 to 2011 was 11,864[xii].  While both deliberate war crimes and accidental civilian deaths also occur in high intensity conflict, they do not garner the media attention per civilian death of similar incidents during counterinsurgencies.  7,413 civilians were killed during the 52 day invasion of Iraq, eight to 17% of the estimated civilian casualties in Iraq from March 2003 to August 2008.[xiii]  While these civilian casualties did receive a significant amount of media attention, it was miniscule per death compared to the media coverage following civilian mass casualties caused by coalition forces during the counterinsurgency phase.  Both deliberate and accidental civilian deaths conflict with the desire of part of the American population for the United States to be a force for good, casting doubt on the validity of its mission, and weakening support for the military campaign.

Both the lack of a perceived victory in recent counterinsurgencies and wariness over a cost that is unacceptable to the general population have made mobilizing the American population more difficult.  The recent response to the conflicts in Libya and Syria illustrate this trend.  According to a Gallup Poll taken in March 2011 during the air intervention in Libya, only 28% of Americans approved of sending in ground troops, even as thousands of surface to air missiles sat unguarded after the fall of the Qaddafi regime.[xiv]   Popular support for an intervention in Syria a year and a half later was even lower.  As reported by a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in December 2012, only 17% of Americans supported the use of military force in Syria, despite Syria’s possession of one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world.[xv]  Syrian forces could easily use this stockpile on the Syrian people, or allow the weapons to fall into the hands of extremist groups as the Syrian state continues to dissolve. 

The American people reacted very differently to proposals to invade Iraq in 2002 and 2003, prior to large, protracted counterinsurgencies in two states.  According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, from June of 2002 to February of 2003, public support for the invasion of Iraq wavered between a low of 52% to a high of 63%.  Despite the lack of public presentation of hard evidence of a threat to American interests prior to the invasion of Iraq, evidence the government and international media clearly presented for both Libya and Syria, the invasion of Iraq enjoyed much greater popular support.

The American people’s support for war receded so much that they doubt the wisdom of invading Iraq and Afghanistan at all, much less engaging in a protracted counterinsurgency. According to data pulled from numerous Gallup polls from November 2001 to March of 2013, the percentage of the American population who believed it was a mistake to invade Afghanistan gradually rose from 11 percent in 2001 to 49 percent in 2013.[xvi]   Similarly, data gathered by the Pew Research center shows that between 2003 and 2012, American public support for the decision to invade Iraq dropped from 75 percent to 42 percent.[xvii]  The exception to this drop was an increase from 39 percent popular support in 2008 to 42 percent in 2009 following the election of President Obama.  This increase was followed by a return to gradually decreasing popular support.  America’s campaign in Vietnam experienced a similar decrease in support over time, decreasing from 61 percent in 1965 to 29.5 percent in 1973.[xviii]

Vietnam[xix] Iraq[xx] Afghanistan[xxi]

The steady drop in approval during America’s modern large counterinsurgencies is indicative of the effects of prolonged counterinsurgencies on the population’s mindset.  Combined with the hesitancy to act in both Syria and Libya as compared to Iraq, data indicates the American people gradually reduce their support during protracted, large military campaigns, then do not support the use of military force when called upon soon thereafter.

The lack of clear victories and high financial and self-perception costs in large counterinsurgencies reduces the probability the American people will support future military action, or maintain support once it has begun.  Without the support of the people, both the government’s and military’s efforts are undermined and are far less likely to be successful.  Aware of this, the American government is now more reluctant to use military force.  The international community is aware of this reluctance, reducing the credibility of the American military as both an overt or implied threat to non-existential threats.  With this loss of credibility, the American military cannot fulfill one of its primary roles in American foreign policy as effectively, namely preventing wars.  This is particularly troubling for large counterinsurgencies, given that all of the described trends take place even when government forces are victorious, and only increase if insurgent forces prevail, leading to the unfortunate conclusion that even a strategically victorious counterinsurgency can be a foreign policy loss.

If the United States’ military does deploy, to become an instrument of policy and accomplish the government’s goals, the military must have the operational freedom and leverage necessary to accomplish their mission.  If the military, or the United States as a whole, loses control of factors critical to success, it reduces both operational freedom and leverage, and therefore the probability of success. 

The ideas outlined in FM 3-24 revolve around the belief that insurgencies are a political battle between an existing authority and an insurgent force for the population’s perception of which of the two is the legitimate government.[xxii]  Reliance on the legitimacy of the host nation government forces the intervening state to cede control of the outcome of the counterinsurgency to the host nation government.  The loss of control limits operational freedom and sharply reduces the leverage available to intervening forces.

Merely defining legitimacy is problematic.  The definition is necessarily vague, as legitimacy varies wildly in different cultures and circumstances.  Unfortunately, this vagueness creates a number of problems for an intervening state.  Legitimacy can be defined differently by a foreign counterinsurgent, host nation government, and different segments of the population, all concurrently in the same state.  This causes confusion for commanders and diplomats as they try to create a unified definition of legitimacy, and friction between the intervening state and the host nation government as the different definitions create conflicting priorities.  While the eventual answer should be whatever the population believes legitimacy to be, or some form of compromise with their belief, determining this belief can be difficult in a complex environment with many differing beliefs in play.

To validate the claim that ceding control to the host nation government creates an unreliable foreign policy tool, this paper analyzes data gathered from 12 counterinsurgency case studies from the 20th century to demonstrate the frequency of factors linked to host nation government behavior, the cost to the intervening state, and how often these factors correspond with counterinsurgent success or failure.  In the analyzed case studies, the counterinsurgents were the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Vietnamese in Kampuchea, ECOWAS in Liberia, the French in Rwanda, the British in Sierra Leone, Malaysia, and Aden, the Russians in Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Chechnya; NATO and the United Nations in Kosovo, and the United States in Vietnam.  

There were significantly more counterinsurgencies in the 20th century, but most took place as part of a civil war, not as a foreign force intervening in another state.  Foreign intervention counterinsurgencies and civil counterinsurgencies use many of the same techniques, but the target audience of both theory and counterinsurgent behavior differs between the two.  During a counterinsurgency in a civil war, the host nation government and the counterinsurgent force are one and the same, and it attempts to affect its own population.  In a foreign intervention counterinsurgency, theory aims at the foreign counterinsurgent, who attempts to affect both the host nation government and the host nation population.  In a counterinsurgency in a civil war, the government fights directly for survival, while in foreign intervention counterinsurgencies, the intervening state is rarely immediately threatened.  Civil war counterinsurgencies also operate in their home environment, or at least much closer to it than the foreign counterinsurgent.  This gives the civil war counterinsurgents much greater knowledge of their environment, a reduced appearance as outsiders, and a reduced requirement to project power when compared to the foreign counterinsurgent.

Eight factors were used to analyze the case studies.  The length of the counterinsurgency measured whether the commitment was longer than seven years, based on General Marshall’s theory that a democracy can only support a war for seven years.  The size of the commitment of the intervening state’s soldiers measured whether the counterinsurgent force represented a strategically significant portion of the intervening state’s military.  The acceptability of the financial cost to the intervening government evaluated whether finances dictated the intervening state’s level of involvement or willingness to continue. The nature of the host nation government split the host nations into democracies and non-democracies due to the population’s greater ability to affect their government’s behavior in democracies.  How often the host nation government committed war crimes against its own population split host nation governments by whether or not they deliberately targeted a portion of the population with little discrimination between combatants and non-combatants.  The host nation government’s willingness to reform factor evaluated the dialogue between the government and insurgent or population and the level of consequent change in governance.  The popular support factor evaluated whether the host nation government or insurgency received more support from the population in the form of intelligence, logistics, and in some cases, participation in fighting.  The acceptability of insurgent demands to the intervening state measured the level of conflict between the intervening state’s and insurgent’s stated objectives, and the degree of compromise during negotiations if negotiations occurred.

States that commit human rights violations against their own population forcibly distance at least part of the population from the government.  That part will often look for some way to protect themselves.  Even if a government does not commit human rights violations, if it is unwilling to reform, an unsatisfied population will look for a way outside its current system to change their relationship with the government.  And a population that does not support its government’s policies will probably not support its government against an insurgent force.  All of these circumstances reduce the legitimacy of a host nation government in the eyes of its population, forming additional obstacles counterinsurgents must overcome.

The size of the troop commitment, monetary cost, the acceptability of insurgent demands to the intervening state, and length of the counterinsurgency were all discarded due to their weak association with an outcome.  Counterinsurgents were defeated after committing a strategically significant force 58% of the time, when finances dictated the course of events 50% of the time, and 58% of the time when they lasted longer than seven years, and 42% of the time when insurgent demands were unacceptable to the intervening state.

Table 1[xxiii]

Table 1 shows the frequency of different factors during foreign intervention counterinsurgencies.  The state column shows the state the counterinsurgency occurred in and what state intervened in parentheses.  HN is host nation, HNF is host nation forces, IS is intervening state, and HNG is host nation government.

States that require a large intervention are not usually very legitimate, or they would not require an intervention.  If an invasion by the United States is not the cause of a government collapse, then the host nation government has typically lost control of its environment due to outside interference, human rights violations against its own population, unwillingness to reform to match the population’s wants and needs, or a lack of popular support for its policies.  In the cases studied, 67% of the host nation governments committed regular human rights violations against their own population, 67% were unwilling to reform, 75% lacked popular support, and none were true democracies prior to a foreign intervention.   These factors reduce the legitimacy of the host nation government in the eyes of its population, making a counterinsurgency more difficult. 

These obstacles are not easy for intervening states to overcome, and they usually do not.  Regular human rights violations by the host nation government coincide with counterinsurgent failure 92% of the time.  Similarly, the host nation government’s unwillingness to reform coincides with counterinsurgent failure 92% of the time.  A population’s support for its government’s policies coincides with the success of the counterinsurgency 83% of the time.  The key element of these factors is that the intervening state can influence, but not usually force a change to these factors without significantly damaging the legitimacy of both governments.  Some of the strongest factors in the success of a large counterinsurgency are outside the control of the intervening state, weakening its ability to achieve the desired strategic outcome.

Host nation governments must create a popular perception that they can meet their population’s wants and needs to gain legitimacy.  To create this perception, the host nation government may need to develop policies that are not acceptable to an intervening force.  In the examined counterinsurgencies, insurgent demands were acceptable to the intervening force 42% of the time, but the acceptability of their demands to the intervening state was associated with success 67% of the time.  The intervening state can use information operations to affect the population’s desires, but populations have desires tied to cultural, military, or economic beliefs and history that are difficult for an outside force to control, limiting the influence of the intervening state.

British operations against communist forces in Malaysia from 1948 to 1960 are shown as an example of a successful counterinsurgency in John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife.  British force’s learning organization, knowledge of Malaysian culture, and strategic plan might not have been effective if the British had not wanted to grant Malaysia independence.  The British built their unity with the Malaysian government and their acceptability to the population on the promise of this transition and the population’s desire for self-government, not just the adaptability of the British Army.  When the British conducted another counterinsurgency in Aden during the 1960s, British goals conflicted with the population’s nationalist desires, and the British counterinsurgency failed. 

Table 2

Table 2 shows the co-occurrence of each factor with either victory or defeat.  TRUE indicates Yes or No in the previous chart was associated with victory or defeat respectively.  False indicates the association was reversed.  As the average by factor approaches one, the statement at the top of Table 2 becomes more likely.  .50 is neutral, and zero is inversely indicative.  HN is host nation, HNF is host nation forces, IS is intervening state, and HNG is host nation government.

Each of the four significant factors strongly associated with counterinsurgent failure frequently occur during foreign counterinsurgencies.  There are all also behaviors that are under the control of either the insurgent force or the host nation government.  Given that both the international community and American public frown upon forcibly removing non-threatening foreign governments when they do not meet American approval, a large part of the outcome of counterinsurgencies is outside the control of the U.S. military when it intervenes in another country.  With this loss of control, the military loses the freedom of maneuver and leverage required to become an effective tool of foreign policy.

Large, prolonged counterinsurgencies reduce the United States’ ability to deter other threats.   The population’s exposure to the protracted financial and emotional costs of war without a perceived victory reduces the population’s willingness to use force in the future.  The military’s reliance on factors outside of its control to achieve victory hamstrings its efforts to achieve victory.  Both of these diminish the United States’ ability to initiate and wage future wars.  With this diminishment comes a loss of deterrence, as foreign threats perceive that the United States is unlikely to use force, and unlikely to use it effectively if it does.

To be effective in future conflicts, the United States must deliberately maintain the American people’s support and provide the military the tools necessary to win.  Some of this maintenance will involve designing a strong strategic narrative to bolster domestic and international support or carefully selecting the states in which to intervene, but just as importantly, leaders must recognize the limits of military power.  Even if the military has the capability to accomplish its mission in a vacuum, if the entire campaign is not supported, even strategic victories can turn into foreign policy failures.

End Notes

[i] Congressional Research Service, National Security Strategy 2013, (Washington D.C.: United States Government Executive Branch, 2013) 11.

[ii] United States Army. Headquarters, Department of the Army. 2012. ADP 1 The Army. 1-5. 

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, and Smith, “Testing Novel Implications from the Selectorate Theory of War” New York University, 3.

[v] T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom A Triumph (Virginia: Wilder, 2011).

[vi] Ben Connable and Martin C. Libicki. How Insurgencies End. (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2010), 17.

[vii] Ibid

[viii] United States Army. Headquarters, Department of the Army. 2012. Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, 2006. 2-22.

[ix] Congressional Research Service, Cost of Major U.S. Wars, by Stephen Daggett, CRS 7-5700 (Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 2010) 5.

[x] Congressional Research Service, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11, by Amy Belasco, CRS RL33110 (Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 2011) 5.

[xi] Congressional Research Service, Iraqi Civilian Deaths Estimates, by Hannah Fischer, CRS RS22537 (Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 2008) 3.

[xii] Congressional Research Service, Afghanistan Casualties: Military Forces and Civilians, by Susan G. Chesser, CRS R41084 (Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 2012) 3-4.

[xiii] “Iraq Body Count,” last modified June 18, 2013,

[xiv] Stewart, Rebecca. 2011. “Polls: Americans approve of military action in Libya.” Central News Network, 19 April.

[xv]Clement , Scott. 2012. “Poll: Americans also see chemical weapon ‘red line’ in Syria.” Washington Post, 6 April. International Section.

[xvi] “Afghanistan,” Gallup,  last modified March, 2013,

[xvii] “Public Attitudes Toward the War in Iraq: 2003-2008,” Pew Research, last modified March 19, 2008,

[xviii] “The Vietnam War as History,” Digital History, accessed November 18,

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] “Iraq” Gallup, accessed November 18,

[xxi] “Afghanistan” Gallup, accessed November 18,

[xxii] United States Army. Headquarters, Department of the Army. 2012. Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, 2006. 2-22.

[xxiii] Christopher Paul, Colin P. Clarke, and Beth Grill, Victory Has a Thousand Fathers Detailed Counterinsurgency Case Studies (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2010).


About the Author(s)

Justin Lynch is an infantry officer in the U.S. Army with a B.S. in history. He has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and is a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed are his own and not those of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


So: How to square the circle of:

a. A foreign policy of the more-modern/essentially more-western nations -- to achieve greater peace and prosperity through the transformation of outlying states and societies along modern western political, economic and social lines.

b. When the application of military force by these more-modern/more-western entities -- against the governments and the military forces of the outlying states and societies -- while being relatively easy and effective against such entities -- have little or no bearing on the true fight at hand, to wit: The fight for the hearts and minds of the populations.

c. Herein, the populations of these outlying states and societies -- understanding that they CANNOT depend on their governments or their military forces -- to protect their alternative ways of life and alternative ways of governance from assault by the whole-of-government/all instruments-of-power forces of the combined more-modern/more-western states and societies.

d. And, thus, these diverse populations take matters into their own hands and join forces and organize -- outside the bounds of their ineffective/compromised state structures, outside the bounds of their ineffective/compromised governments, and outside the bounds of their ineffective/compromised militaries -- to make a last stand re: preserving, protecting or achieving their alternative ways of life and alternative ways of governance.

e. This forcing the more-modern/more-western states and societies into much more-costly (in blood, political capital and other treasure), much more-difficult, much more-nasty and much more-long-running conflicts than they (the more-modern/more-western states and societies) originally contemplated.

In circumstances such as these, just how can the more-modern/more-western states and societies develop and field (1) credible military forces which can (2) effectively deter and if necessary defeat such opponents in (3) a more-reasonable and timely manner?